October 25, 2009

You've got to remain positive, madam!

There is a book out by Barbara Ehrenreich, called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. While I do believe that a positive outlook on life is worthwhile, I sympathize with her criticism.

Once, I was talking with my grandmother, who was then 95 years old and who died a few years ago. She told me that she found getting older not always easy. For instance, she struggled with some physical discomforts and with doubts and feelings of guild with regard to religion. She had talked about her discomfort with her doctor who had said to her: "You have got to remain positive madam!" My grandmother told me how unpleasant she had found this. "Many people tell me to think positively. But it is very unpleasant when people say that. That won't make me feel any better. If anything, it makes things worse."

Like I said, I actually do believe in the value of positive thinking but trying to convince others to think positively I have not often seen to work. You run the risk of making them feel you don't take them seriously, like they are really exaggerating and should not make such a fuss of their problems. And apart from that, is not easy to think positively when instructed to. That would be like saying to an inhibited person: be spontaneous! My experience is that works better to take seriously what people tell you. When they say they have a problem, acknowledge that and try to help them find a way to cope with it and to take small steps forward if possible.


  1. There are definitely times when we need to be reminded that things won't always be dark and that we can change our situation or make the best of it through change in perception. People that can do this under dismal conditions are a treasure to know.

    I think the problem we have to recognize is that "positive thinking" is a weak way of envisioning this shift in perception. And it is definitely turned into a panacea by many people, who have a rather selective view of "positive psychology" research. It is descriptive but not helpful. "Positive thinking" by itself in the sense of affirmations and exhorations is as likely to backfire as to help, and that's pretty close to the way it is usually assumed to work. It needs to be backed up by due diligence and resilience, things that take skills and often intervention, and not just rose colored glasses.

    Perhaps the trick is to separate out the beneficial shift in perception from the mechanism by which it is assumed to come about. Also, I think it is very possible that positive mindset is more useful under some conditions than others, and if that's true, knowing the difference may be helpful as well.

  2. Thanks Todd.

    A shift in perspective when we are down can make all the difference in the world indeed.

    Sometimes we do indeed need some kind of help by others to find a way to make this shift.

    I think the less forceful the approach by the other person, the higher the chances of successfully shifting.

    The convincing or confrontational approach, no matter how well intended, I have very little confidence in. It is likely to trigger a defensive response as it is a threat to the percieved agency of the person to whom it is said.

    What the solution-focused approach does is very gently helping the person to make the shift himself. SF does this by asking deliberately chosen questions while always accepting and working with what the other person says.

  3. I guess it depends on how the person sees the positivity.
    It is not useful to just ask the person to negate their negative thoughts, that's a recipe for frustration.
    I see positivity more in the context of "Broaden and build" theory. Negative people tend to narrow and constrict their perception field and focus on the negatives only. But there are always positive aspects too and they can be found by "broaden and build"

  4. Hi Peter, thanks. I think the broaden and build theory is indeed relevant to mention here. That theory, for those who don't know it, says that positive emotions broaden one's awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. But, indeed, ordering or asking somebody to experience a positive emotion has little chance of being useful. Instead, accepting what the other person says and gently asking some useful questions is more promising.

  5. I think that the reverse is true too. Broadening the awareness can lead to positive emotions.


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